Cousin Betty/Section 41

Twenty minutes after, Lisbeth and Crevel reached the house in the Rue Barbet, where Madame Marneffe was awaiting, in mild impatience, the result of a step taken by her commands. Valerie had in the end fallen a prey to the absorbing love which, once in her life, masters a woman's heart. Wenceslas was its object, and, a failure as an artist, he became in Madame Marneffe's hands a lover so perfect that he was to her what she had been to Baron Hulot.

Valerie was holding a slipper in one hand, and Steinbock clasped the other, while her head rested on his shoulder. The rambling conversation in which they had been engaged ever since Crevel went out may be ticketed, like certain lengthy literary efforts of our day, "All rights reserved," for it cannot be reproduced. This masterpiece of personal poetry naturally brought a regret to the artist's lips, and he said, not without some bitterness:

"What a pity it is that I married; for if I had but waited, as Lisbeth told me, I might now have married you."

"Who but a Pole would wish to make a wife of a devoted mistress?" cried Valerie. "To change love into duty, and pleasure into a bore."

"I know you to be so fickle," replied Steinbock. "Did I not hear you talking to Lisbeth of that Brazilian, Baron Montes?"

"Do you want to rid me of him?"

"It would be the only way to hinder his seeing you," said the ex-sculptor.

"Let me tell you, my darling—for I tell you everything," said Valerie—"I was saving him up for a husband.—The promises I have made to that man!—Oh, long before I knew you," said she, in reply to a movement from Wenceslas. "And those promises, of which he avails himself to plague me, oblige me to get married almost secretly; for if he should hear that I am marrying Crevel, he is the sort of man that—that would kill me."

"Oh, as to that!" said Steinbock, with a scornful expression, which conveyed that such a danger was small indeed for a woman beloved by a Pole.

And in the matter of valor there is no brag or bravado in a Pole, so thoroughly and seriously brave are they all.

"And that idiot Crevel," she went on, "who wants to make a great display and indulge his taste for inexpensive magnificence in honor of the wedding, places me in difficulties from which I see no escape."

Could Valerie confess to this man, whom she adored, that since the discomfiture of Baron Hulot, this Baron Henri Montes had inherited the privilege of calling on her at all hours of the day or night; and that, notwithstanding her cleverness, she was still puzzled to find a cause of quarrel in which the Brazilian might seem to be solely in the wrong? She knew the Baron's almost savage temper—not unlike Lisbeth's—too well not to quake as she thought of this Othello of Rio de Janeiro.

As the carriage drove up, Steinbock released Valerie, for his arm was round her waist, and took up a newspaper, in which he was found absorbed. Valerie was stitching with elaborate care at the slippers she was working for Crevel.

"How they slander her!" whispered Lisbeth to Crevel, pointing to this picture as they opened the door. "Look at her hair—not in the least tumbled. To hear Victorin, you might have expected to find two turtle-doves in a nest."

"My dear Lisbeth," cried Crevel, in his favorite position, "you see that to turn Lucretia into Aspasia, you have only to inspire a passion!"

"And have I not always told you," said Lisbeth, "that women like a burly profligate like you?"

"And she would be most ungrateful, too," said Crevel; "for as to the money I have spent here, Grindot and I alone can tell!"

And he waved a hand at the staircase.

In decorating this house, which Crevel regarded as his own, Grindot had tried to compete with Cleretti, in whose hands the Duc d'Herouville had placed Josepha's villa. But Crevel, incapable of understanding art, had, like all sordid souls, wanted to spend a certain sum fixed beforehand. Grindot, fettered by a contract, had found it impossible to embody his architectural dream.

The difference between Josepha's house and that in the Rue Barbet was just that between the individual stamp on things and commonness. The objects you admired at Crevel's were to be bought in any shop. These two types of luxury are divided by the river Million. A mirror, if unique, is worth six thousand francs; a mirror designed by a manufacturer who turns them out by the dozen costs five hundred. A genuine lustre by Boulle will sell at a public auction for three thousand francs; the same thing reproduced by casting may be made for a thousand or twelve hundred; one is archaeologically what a picture by Raphael is in painting, the other is a copy. At what would you value a copy of a Raphael? Thus Crevel's mansion was a splendid example of the luxury of idiots, while Josepha's was a perfect model of an artist's home.

"War is declared," said Crevel, going up to Madame Marneffe.

She rang the bell.

"Go and find Monsieur Berthier," said she to the man-servant, "and do not return without him. If you had succeeded," said she, embracing Crevel, "we would have postponed our happiness, my dear Daddy, and have given a really splendid entertainment; but when a whole family is set against a match, my dear, decency requires that the wedding shall be a quiet one, especially when the lady is a widow."

"On the contrary, I intend to make a display of magnificence a la Louis XIV.," said Crevel, who of late had held the eighteenth century rather cheap. "I have ordered new carriages; there is one for monsieur and one for madame, two neat coupes; and a chaise, a handsome traveling carriage with a splendid hammercloth, on springs that tremble like Madame Hulot."

"Oh, ho! You intend?—Then you have ceased to be my lamb?—No, no, my friend, you will do what I intend. We will sign the contract quietly—just ourselves—this afternoon. Then, on Wednesday, we will be regularly married, really married, in mufti, as my poor mother would have said. We will walk to church, plainly dressed, and have only a low mass. Our witnesses are Stidmann, Steinbock, Vignon, and Massol, all wide-awake men, who will be at the mairie by chance, and who will so far sacrifice themselves as to attend mass.

"Your colleague will perform the civil marriage, for once in a way, as early as half-past nine. Mass is at ten; we shall be at home to breakfast by half-past eleven.

"I have promised our guests that we will sit at table till the evening. There will be Bixiou, your old official chum du Tillet, Lousteau, Vernisset, Leon de Lora, Vernou, all the wittiest men in Paris, who will not know that we are married. We will play them a little trick, we will get just a little tipsy, and Lisbeth must join us. I want her to study matrimony; Bixiou shall make love to her, and—and enlighten her darkness."

For two hours Madame Marneffe went on talking nonsense, and Crevel made this judicious reflection:

"How can so light-hearted a creature be utterly depraved? Feather-brained, yes! but wicked? Nonsense!"

"Well, and what did the young people say about me?" said Valerie to Crevel at a moment when he sat down by her on the sofa. "All sorts of horrors?"

"They will have it that you have a criminal passion for Wenceslas—you, who are virtue itself."

"I love him!—I should think so, my little Wenceslas!" cried Valerie, calling the artist to her, taking his face in her hands, and kissing his forehead. "A poor boy with no fortune, and no one to depend on! Cast off by a carrotty giraffe! What do you expect, Crevel? Wenceslas is my poet, and I love him as if he were my own child, and make no secret of it. Bah! your virtuous women see evil everywhere and in everything. Bless me, could they not sit by a man without doing wrong? I am a spoilt child who has had all it ever wanted, and bonbons no longer excite me.—Poor things! I am sorry for them!

"And who slandered me so?"

"Victorin," said Crevel.

"Then why did you not stop his mouth, the odious legal macaw! with the story of the two hundred thousand francs and his mamma?"

"Oh, the Baroness had fled," said Lisbeth.

"They had better take care, Lisbeth," said Madame Marneffe, with a frown. "Either they will receive me and do it handsomely, and come to their stepmother's house—all the party!—or I will see them in lower depths than the Baron has reached, and you may tell them I said so!—At last I shall turn nasty. On my honor, I believe that evil is the scythe with which to cut down the good."

At three o'clock Monsieur Berthier, Cardot's successor, read the marriage-contract, after a short conference with Crevel, for some of the articles were made conditional on the action taken by Monsieur and Madame Victorin Hulot.

Crevel settled on his wife a fortune consisting, in the first place, of forty thousand francs in dividends on specified securities; secondly, of the house and all its contents; and thirdly, of three million francs not invested. He also assigned to his wife every benefit allowed by law; he left all the property free of duty; and in the event of their dying without issue, each devised to the survivor the whole of their property and real estate.

By this arrangement the fortune left to Celestine and her husband was reduced to two millions of francs in capital. If Crevel and his second wife should have children, Celestine's share was limited to five hundred thousand francs, as the life-interest in the rest was to accrue to Valerie. This would be about the ninth part of his whole real and personal estate.